Having studied the pattern of Israeli intelligence, I believe the Mossad still places people in enemy countries, even for long periods of time.
I don’t think the CIA placed spies in communist countries in the same way that Israel does in Arab countries. Frankly it is something that Russia did in various countries. In a way, the Mossad perhaps thinks the same way the KGB used to think.
Eli Cohen was born and raised in Egypt and therefore knew Arabic and Arabic culture intimately. Few young Israelis nowadays, however, have that type of background. Would that perhaps impact the Mossad’s ability to place undercover agents in Arab countries?
Eli Cohen was born in Egypt but he posed as a Syrian. So he knew Arabic, but he had to change his accent radically and also undergo a lot of training.
To answer your question, Israeli intelligence people have told us that they have no lack of volunteers. Many Israelis still speak a lot of foreign languages, often from their family connections, plus they receive the training that the Mossad is so good at. I think they have plenty of operatives.
Switching to more recent times: In 2010, the Mossad assassinated Palestinian terrorist Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. A month later, Dubai’s police released the photos of 27 Israelis whom it claimed were involved in the operation. At the time, many expressed surprise that Mossad agents would let themselves get caught on camera. What is your take?
We believe there was really no choice – that in a modern city, you have to expect security cameras everywhere. Therefore, the Mossad operatives altered their appearance – at least slightly – so that police could not identify them. The head of the Mossad at the time, Meir Dagan, is not embarrassed about the mission at all. He considers it a success.
I did hear from at least two senior people in Israeli intelligence, however, who thought it was terrible that the agents were photographed. So perhaps not everybody agrees with Dagan.
One would think that being caught on camera is a career-ender for a covert operative.
The phrase usually is that “you are burned.” But it’s our understanding that at least some of those operatives are still active. That’s all I can say.
Were you concerned in writing this book that you were perhaps revealing sensitive information and thus harming Israel?
There was concern, but my co-author, Yossi Melman, really knows how to carefully walk the line between analyzing what Israeli intelligence does and giving away dangerous information. We submitted our material to the Israeli military censor, and the censor did not ask for anything significant to be deleted.
In the book, you discuss the Mossad’s longstanding relationship with the CIA. How did that relationship begin?
In 1956, a Polish Jew in Warsaw got the text of a secret speech by Nikita Khrushchev [exposing the crimes of Joseph Stalin] that all the Western intelligence agencies had been looking for. This Jew’s girlfriend worked for the Polish communist party, and he noticed a copy of the speech that had just been sent from Moscow to the head of the Polish Communist Party.
He asked his girlfriend if he could borrow it for a few hours, and he brought it to the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw. It was subsequently sent to Israeli intelligence chiefs in Tel Aviv and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion immediately agreed to share it with the United States. The CIA was thrilled, and this really put Israeli intelligence on the world map at a time when Israel was barely eight years old.
It’s amazing that such a strong relationship could have started as the result of a fluke. This Polish Jew, after all, had nothing to do with the world of intelligence and basically stumbled upon this speech.
Good intelligence agencies take advantage of all sorts of flukes and coincidences. Israel has had a lot of good luck. In many cases, the Mossad created those situations, but picking up that speech in Warsaw was just a lucky find – a Jewish man with a well-placed girlfriend.
Who would you say benefits more from the Mossad-CIA relationship, Israel or the United States?
I would say Israel. While Israel seems like a regional superpower, it’s worth remembering that it’s a tiny country with only seven million people. It really needs the alliance with the U.S.